‘Sidney’ tackles the not-so-comfortable conversations about a black movie icon

Often it’s almost impossible to have a real conversation about a venerable figure in the midst of today’s stan culture – and even sometimes frustrated discouraged. This is especially true when dealing with old black icons who paved the way for those who followed them and whose less comfortable truths are often set aside out of respect.

But director Reginald Hudlin’s “Sidney,” which explores the life and career of the late Sidney Poitier, actually has these conversations. He does it without flinching and frankly. And it includes a variety of equally respected heroes of noir cinema who are forced to reckon with the full portrait of Poitier, a man both aspiring and inspiring just as much as he frustrated and disappointed.

We rarely really talk about that last part. “Sidney” implores us anyway.

It’s also a funny thing, because for many of us, when it was announced that there would be a documentary about Poitier, a few questions immediately came to mind: Will it include his affair with “Porgy and Bess” co-star Diahann Carroll, who, like him, was married at the time?

Will he face Uncle Tom’s dialogue which increased during the era of blaxploitation which was much less compromising on how Blackness was portrayed on screen? The answer to both questions is yes and fortunately.

Sidney Pitier (right) in the 1958 film ‘The Defiant Ones’, alongside actor Tony Curtis (left).

Photo by Film Publicity Archive/United Archives via Getty Images

This is not to sensationalize or tarnish the reputation of a man who opened doors of opportunity for black people in Hollywood and encouraged his contemporaries to stand up for civil rights with the likes of Martin Luther King Jr. Rather, it’s about honoring his humanity – every facet of it.

Hudlin is more than equipped for the job. After all, he kicked off his career on the heels of Poitier, who intentionally stepped behind the camera to direct films by and for black people like “A Piece of the Action,” “Let’s Do It Again,” and “Uptown Saturday Night.” “in the 70’s.

Known for leading black classics like “Boomerang” and “House Party” in the ’90s, Hudlin is probably familiar with the quiet expectation of compromise in a system that generally only celebrates you when you play by its rules.

Hudlin also has the benefit of hindsight when telling the story of “Sidney”. He’s 30 years in the game and has relevant insight into the Hollywood system today. But he also sympathizes with what it was like years ago for actors like Poitier.

That’s why so many passages throughout “Sidney” feel so honest and empathetic, while questioning and sobering. Hudlin certainly does more than his due diligence in amassing the full breadth of Poitier’s life growing up in poverty in the Bahamas through interviews with the actor as well as archival footage of Poitier reflecting on his experiences.

Poitier in his home, the theatre, in a photo by "sydney"
Poitier in his home, the theater, in an image from “Sidney”

Courtesy of Apple TV Plus

He finally pulled himself together, moved to Harlem and banked on his immense talent. There he faced and, in a sense, overcame a whole new set of challenges as a young black comedian in relentlessly white spaces.

While Poitier earned his stripes performing in black spaces like the American Negro Theater, it wasn’t until white Hollywood took notice that he became immortalized. It’s a fact that catalyzes a lingering question in “Sidney” about where in the zeitgeist black actors belong once they receive white adoration.

You do not find an answer in the interviews with certain white contemporaries of Poitiers. Barbra Streisand and Robert Redford in the film unequivocally admire him for who he was and who he was trying to be. But you might be able to find your own answer to that by watching some of the clips Hudlin digs into the film.

Poitier is interviewed by a white reporter in a scene from archival footage— still a white journalist at the time – just as his career took off on how he got his start. The interviewer talks about being asked Poitier to get rid of his “bad native accent was ‘bad’ to get more work. And how did the actor fix it? He revealed to the interviewer he had taught himself by impersonating a white man he had seen on screen.

It’s a brief exchange between two men that probably wouldn’t have struck anyone at the time because it was expected. But looking back now in the ‘Sidney’ story, it says a lot about the landscape through which Poitier won his success – and how he even, perhaps unwittingly, sometimes maintained it.

Poitier at the 1961 Cannes Film Festival in Cannes, France.
Poitier at the 1961 Cannes Film Festival in Cannes, France.

Photo by Gilbert TOURTE/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

“Sidney” also finds Poitier’s descendants, those who could honor him most like Halle Berry, Oprah Winfrey, Morgan Freeman and Spike Lee, wrestling with the complexities of his career while revering him. Because, as we too often forget, both things can be done at the same time.

Harry Belafonte, one of Poitier’s longest friends, who has often teamed up with him in the fight for racial justice, doesn’t mince words when talking about their playful professional rivalry (Poitier’s career skyrocketed the evening when he intervened as an understudy on stage for Belafonte).

The two were often in contention for the same roles but, more importantly, they disagreed on several political issues that sometimes kept them from talking to each other for years. Belafonte is also open to turning down Poitier’s role in “The Defiant Ones,” because his character, an escaped convict, helps his white, racist fellow inmate (Tony Curtis).

In response, Denzel Washington points to something not often overlooked in these kinds of conversations: opportunity. While Poitier stood up for many things and was very outspoken about issues of racism and other injustices in Hollywood and beyond, he was also a married father of two with financial obligations.

Not everyone, as Washington says, has multiple forms of income to take home. As Poitier hustled in Hollywood, Belafonte was also making money on stage,”Dayo-ing.”

Harry Belafonte (left) and Sidney Poitier attend the first edition of Nelson Mandela "bridge to freedom" Awards at the Regent Beverly Wilshire Hotel in Beverly Hills, California.
Harry Belafonte (left) and Sidney Poitier attend the First Annual Nelson Mandela ‘Bridge to Freedom’ Awards at the Regent Beverly Wilshire Hotel in Beverly Hills, CA.

Photo by Ron Galella, Ltd./Ron Galella Collection via Getty Images

But Poitier was well aware of these conversations about him and his cinematic choices. He was always supportive of his decisions, while acknowledging the points people had raised about them. His serious response was to start a black production company in the 70s.

But when, how and whether to confront the role of the black image on screen – especially in his day – was harder to maneuver.

The question of compromise could be posed to any of the black luminaries Hudlin spoke to in “Sidney” — and for what it’s worth, they’ve all faced questions about navigating whiteness in Hollywood. Winfrey even openly acknowledged how some Black audiences turned on her for what they saw as addressing white audiences on her eponymous hit TV show.

This is what helped to bond the two characters. There’s a moment where we see a visibly emotional Winfrey, who like Hudlin is a “Sidney” producer, burst into tears over her love for Poitier as the camera stares at her for several seconds.

What’s most clear right now, however, is how these questions about how blackness manifests and for whom, in largely white spaces, remain as relevant today as ever. There is even something to be said for Poitier being a black sex symbol, supported and adored by many black women, but he left his first wife and ultimately Carroll to marry a white woman.

Actor Sidney Poitier and actress Diahann Carroll attend the 36th Academy Awards in Santa Monica, California.
Actor Sidney Poitier and actress Diahann Carroll attend the 36th Academy Awards in Santa Monica, California.

Photo by Earl Leaf/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Baffling “Sidney” doesn’t even acknowledge this aspect of his personal and romantic life. In a film that explores all the other complicated subjects surrounding Poitiers and the world in which it thrived, this omission from Hudlin and screenwriter Jesse James Miller seems strange.

It’s especially odd when you think about it in terms of the long history of black men choosing white romantic partners after achieving success in white spaces.

There is no doubt that Poitier loved his widow Joanna Shimkus. She and their children, as well as Poitier’s children with his first wife Juanita Hardy, are all interviewed in the film and praise his relationship with each of them (in regards to Poitier cheating on Hardy with Carroll, which understandably devastated her).

They say he also encouraged his children to have relationships with each other and his biracial children to understand their identity. Still, that’s the one area of ​​the film that doesn’t feel complete.

But when “Sidney” soars, which it does most of the time, it’s an utterly satisfying portrait of a man who gave us so much within the confines of a system that was inventing new rules for his unprecedented success. as it happened, and the intricate ways he responded to that.

“Sidney” doesn’t bother to simplify the details around Poitier’s biography, or try to complicate his story. Rather, he honors the very real complexities of the life he lived.

“Sidney” premiered at the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival and will be released on Apple TV Plus on September 23.


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